For skeptics, Modi's vaunted economic record also needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. As the argument goes, Gujaratis have always been an entrepreneurial people -- in the United States they dominate the motel industry -- and would likely have prospered even without Modi. Moreover, while Gujarat has grown fast, other states have grown faster still, and the state's human development indicators are not nearly as impressive as its GDP figures.
On balance, though, the economic argument against Modi appears weak. Most states that have grown faster than Gujarat either are much smaller or are starting from a much lower base. Moreover, human development indicators often lag income gains, and the effects of sustained double-digit growth in Gujarat will likely become evident over the coming years. In a new book, India's Tryst With Destiny, Columbia University economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya credit Gujarat with making greater strides in health and education since independence than Kerala, which is often held up as India's poster child in terms of human development.
Moreover, there's more to Modi's economic message than GDP growth alone. No other Indian chief minister stands up publicly for the idea of small government, fiscal responsibility, getting the government out of business, and providing people jobs rather than handouts.
But giving Modi his due as an administrator is not the same as endorsing him to lead either his party or the country. For the BJP, the most pressing challenge is to transform itself into a modern conservative party that appeals to Indians of all faiths, as well as to liberal-minded Hindus who believe that India could do with a dose of fiscal rectitude and a more muscular approach to national security. Picking a moderate figure such as the urbane former law minister Arun Jaitley to lead the party would send exactly this message. Modi may well energize the BJP's base, but thanks to the shadow of the 2002 riots, he will likely also repel religious minorities and narrow the number of allies willing to partner with the BJP in a coalition.
For India more broadly, it makes no sense to elect a leader associated with a chapter of history the country would rather forget. In late November, 25 members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to continue to deny Modi a U.S. visa. On the world stage, a Modi-led India would need to expend too much energy defending its commitment to secular democracy rather than pursuing pressing economic and strategic objectives. In the immediate neighborhood, ties with Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Pakistan would take a beating. Farther afield, India's soft power would lose some of its appeal.
What then for the talented Mr. Modi? Oddly enough, his may be a case where Indian democracy is actually working. Ever since the riots, India has effectively placed Modi on a hamster wheel of permanent penance, forcing him to try to rehabilitate himself through good governance. Perhaps this place -- serving as an electorally successful, economically savvy chief minister who can inspire others -- is where he belongs. Alternatively, should the BJP recapture power in New Delhi, appointing Modi as an economic czar, perhaps as both finance and trade minister, would send the right message to domestic and foreign investors alike.
In short, Narendra Modi may well be India's best chief minister. But he'd still make a terrible choice for prime minister.